Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

“I know.” To his fury, Grey could feel the blood rising in his cheeks. To hide it, he swung about, letting the cold air from the half-open window play on his countenance. “Surely,” he said, to the rain-slick gray stones below, “if he is the intelligent man you say, he would not be so foolish as to attack me in my own quarters, in the midst of the prison? What would be the purpose in it?”

Quarry didn’t answer. After a moment, Grey turned around, to find the other staring at him thoughtfully, all trace of humor gone from the broad, ruddy face.

“There’s intelligence,” Quarry said slowly. “And then there are other things. But perhaps you’re too young to have seen hate and despair at close range. There’s been a deal of it in Scotland, these last ten years.” He tilted his head, surveying the new commander of Ardsmuir from his vantage point of fifteen years’ seniority.

Major Grey was young, no more than twenty-six, and with a fair-complexioned face and girlish lashes that made him look still younger than his years. To compound the problem, he was an inch or two shorter than the average, and fine-boned, as well. He drew himself up straight.

“I am aware of such things, Colonel,” he said evenly. Quarry was a younger son of good family, like himself, but still his superior in rank; he must keep his temper.

Quarry’s bright hazel gaze rested on him in speculation.

“I daresay.”

With a sudden motion, he clapped his hat on his head. He touched his cheek, where the darker line of a scar sliced across the ruddy skin; a memento of the scandalous duel that had sent him into exile at Ardsmuir.

“God knows what you did to be sent here, Grey,” he said, shaking his head. “But for your own sake, I hope you deserved it! Luck to you!” And with a swirl of blue cloak, he was gone.

“Better the Devil ye ken, than the Devil ye don’t,” Murdo Lindsay said, shaking his head lugubriously. “Handsome Harry was nain sae bad.”

“No, he wasna, then,” agreed Kenny Lesley. “But ye’ll ha’ been here when he came, no? He was a deal better than that shite-face Bogle, aye?”

“Aye,” said Murdo, looking blank. “What’s your meaning, man?”

“So if Handsome was better than Bogle,” Lesley explained patiently, “then Handsome was the Devil we didna ken, and Bogle the one that we did—but Handsome was better, in spite of that, so you’re wrong, man.”

“I am?” Murdo, hopelessly confused by this bit of reasoning, glowered at Lesley. “No, I’m not!”

“Ye are, then,” Lesley said, losing patience. “Ye’re always wrong, Murdo! Why d’ye argue, when ye’re never in the right of it?”

“I’m no arguin’!” Murdo protested indignantly. “Ye’re takin’ exception to me, not t’other way aboot.”

“Only because you’re wrong, man!” Lesley said. “If ye were right, I’d have said not a word.”

“I’m not wrong! At least I dinna think so,” Murdo muttered, unable to recall precisely what he had said. He turned, appealing to the large figure seated in the corner. “Mac Dubh, was I wrong?”

The tall man stretched himself, the chain of his irons chiming faintly as he moved, and laughed.

“No, Murdo, ye’re no wrong. But we canna say if ye’re right yet awhile. Not ’til we see what the new Devil’s like, aye?” Seeing Lesley’s brows draw down in preparation for further dispute, he raised his voice, speaking to the room at large. “Has anyone seen the new Governor yet? Johnson? MacTavish?”

“I have,” Hayes said, pushing gladly forward to warm his hands at the fire. There was only one hearth in the large cell, and room for no more than six men before it at a time. The other forty were left in bitter chill, huddling together in small groups for warmth.

Consequently, the agreement was that whoever had a tale to tell or a song to sing might have a place by the hearth, for as long as he spoke. Mac Dubh had said this was a bard-right, that when the bards came to the auld castles, they would be given a warm place and plenty to eat and drink, to the honor of the laird’s hospitality. There was never food or drink to spare here, but the warm place was certain.

Hayes relaxed, eyes closed and a beatific smile on his face as he spread his hands to the warmth. Warned by restive movement to either side, though, he hastily opened his eyes and began to speak.

“I saw him when he came in from his carriage, and then again, when I brought up a platter o’ sweeties from the kitchens, whilst he and Handsome Harry were nattering to ain another.” Hayes frowned in concentration.

“He’s fair-haired, wi’ long yellow locks tied up wi’ blue ribbon. And big eyes and long lashes, too, like a lassie’s.” Hayes leered at his listeners, batting his own stubby lashes in mock flirtation.

Encouraged by the laughter, he went on to describe the new Governor’s clothes—“fine as a laird’s”—his equipage and servant—“one of they Sassenachs as talks like he’s burnt his tongue”—and as much as had been overheard of the new man’s speech.

“He talks sharp and quick, like he’ll know what’s what,” Hayes said, shaking his head dubiously. “But he’s verra young, forbye—he looks scarce more than a wean, though I’d reckon he’s older than his looks.”

“Aye, he’s a bittie fellow, smaller than wee Angus,” Baird chimed in, with a jerk of the head at Angus MacKenzie, who looked down at himself in startlement. Angus had been twelve when he fought beside his father at Culloden. He had spent nearly half his life in Ardsmuir, and in consequence of the poor fare of prison, had never grown much bigger.

“Aye,” Hayes agreed, “but he carries himself well; shoulders square and a ramrod up his arse.”

This gave rise to a burst of laughter and ribald comment, and Hayes gave way to Ogilvie, who knew a long and scurrilous story about the laird of Donibristle and the hogman’s daughter. Hayes left the hearth without resentment, and went—as was the custom—to sit beside Mac Dubh.

Mac Dubh never took his place on the hearth, even when he told them the long stories from the books that he’d read—The Adventures of Roderick Random, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, or everyone’s favorite, Robinson Crusoe. Claiming that he needed the room to accommodate his long legs, Mac Dubh sat always in his same spot in the corner, where everyone might hear him. But the men who left the fire would come, one by one, and sit down on the bench beside him, to give him the warmth that lingered in their clothes.

“Shall ye speak to the new Governor tomorrow, d’ye think, Mac Dubh?” Hayes asked as he sat. “I met Billy Malcolm, coming in from the peat-cutting, and he shouted to me as the rats were grown uncommon bold in their cell just now. Six men bitten this sennight as they slept, and two of them festering.”

Mac Dubh shook his head, and scratched at his chin. He had been allowed a razor before his weekly audiences with Harry Quarry, but it had been five days since the last of these, and his chin was thick with red stubble.

“I canna say, Gavin,” he said. “Quarry did say as he’d tell the new fellow of our arrangement, but the new man might have his own ways, aye? If I’m called to see him, though, I shall be sure to say about the rats. Did Malcolm ask for Morrison to come and see to the festering, though?” The prison had no doctor; Morrison, who had a touch for healing, was permitted by the guards to go from cell to cell to tend the sick or injured, at Mac Dubh’s request.

Hayes shook his head. “He hadna time to say more—they were marching past, aye?”

“Best I send Morrison,” Mac Dubh decided. “He can ask Billy is there aught else amiss there.” There were four main cells where the prisoners were kept in large groups; word passed among them by means of Morrison’s visits and the mingling of men on the work crews that went out daily to haul stone or cut peats on the nearby moor.

Morrison came at once when summoned, pocketing four of the carved rats’ skulls with which the prisoners improvised games of draughts. Mac Dubh groped under the bench where he sat, drawing out the cloth bag he carried when he went to the moor.

“Och, not more o’ the damn thistles,” Morrison protested, seeing Mac Dubh’s grimace as he groped in the bag. “I canna make them eat those things; they all say, do I think them kine, or maybe pigs?”

Mac Dubh gingerly set down a fistful of wilted stalks, and sucked his pricked fingers.

“They’re stubborn as pigs, to be sure,” he remarked. “It’s only milk thistle. How often must I tell ye, Morrison? Take the thistle heads off, and mash the leaves and stems fine, and if they’re too prickly to eat spread on a bannock, then make a tea of them and have them drink it. I’ve yet to see pigs drink tea, tell them.”

Morrison’s lined face cracked in a grin. An elderly man, he knew well enough how to handle recalcitrant patients; he only liked to complain for the fun of it.

“Aye, well, I’ll say have they ever seen a toothless cow?” he said, resigned, as he tucked the limp greens carefully into his own sack. “But you’ll be sure to bare your teeth at Joel McCulloch, next time ye see him. He’s the worst o’ them, for not believin’ as the greens do help wi’ the scurvy.”

“Say as I’ll bite him in the arse,” Mac Dubh promised, with a flash of his excellent teeth, “if I hear he hasna eaten his thistles.”

Morrison made the small amused noise that passed for a belly laugh with him, and went to gather up the bits of ointment and the few herbs he had for medicines.

Mac Dubh relaxed for the moment, glancing about the room to be sure no trouble brewed. There were feuds at the moment; he’d settled Bobby Sinclair and Edwin Murray’s trouble a week back, and while they were not friends, they were keeping their distance from one another.

He closed his eyes. He was tired; he had been hauling stone all day. Supper would be along in a few minutes—a tub of parritch and some bread to be shared out, a bit of brose too if they were lucky—and likely most of the men would go to sleep soon after, leaving him a few minutes of peace and semiprivacy, when he need not listen to anyone or feel he must do anything.

He had had no time as yet even to wonder about the new Governor, important as the man would be to all their lives. Young, Hayes had said. That might be good, or might be bad.

Older men who had fought in the Rising were often prejudiced against Highlanders—Bogle, who had put him in irons, had fought with Cope. A scared young soldier, though, trying to keep abreast of an unfamiliar job, could be more rigid and tyrannical than the crustiest of old colonels. Aye well, and nothing to be done but wait to see.

He sighed and shifted his posture, incommoded—for the ten-thousandth time—by the manacles he wore. He shifted irritably, banging one wrist against the edge of the bench. He was large enough that the weight of the irons didn’t trouble him overmuch, but they chafed badly with the work. Worse was the inability to spread his arms more than eighteen inches apart; this gave him cramp and a clawing feeling, deep in the muscle of chest and back, that left him only when he slept.

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